woensdag 28 januari 2009

Something small

The workshop Thinking for someone else examines what happens when one person thinks for another person, when that other person doesn’t like that and when, because of that, the thinker is suddenly ashamed of himself. He feels as having made an intrusion into the other’s domain.

It occurs that, after participants in the workshop have intensively discussed that phenomenon of ‘rationalityshame’, they remark: “After all, it’s something very small, isn’t it?”.

They are right, because we then talked for two hours about confrontations which lasted just a split second, between not more than two people, and often with some trivial cause.

The reason for this narrow focus of the workshop is that the transgression which thinking for another person may cause, is most acutely perceptable at those moments. When the thinker reads from the face of his interlocutor: I may have the best intentions but now I am going too far – exactly then rationalityshame may strike at its most intrusive.

Because of that vehemence, the small suddenly becomes very powerfull. What happens there is also very important from a philosophical point of view: thinking – even the well-meant, euphoric thinking – apparently causes harm. And thinking doesn’t realize this by itself, but apparently needs some external force to become aware of that. The autonomy we cherish so much doesn’t manage to carry on without moments of heteronomy.

The magnitude of this theme immediately becomes obvious when we relate it to twentieth century political history. Most of all the developments within the diverse communistic experiments give us food for thought. There was no lack of good intentions in the original communistic leaders, neither a lack of thinking power. But at the same time it became terribly clear that the uncorrected faith in ones own thinking power and in ones own definitions of the world creates monsters. Even if you have the best intentions. When the correcting power of dissidents is brushed aside, thinking shows its violent face.

So, the neglect of rationalityshame is very dangerous. Levinas spended a lifetime pointing to that danger. He stressed the often unnoticed violent character of thinking and placed the correcting effect of rationalityshame over against it. For him, the magnitude of twentieth century political horrors and the denial of the small trivial phenomenon of rationalityshame were narrowly tied.